Having missed ever seeing Shobana Jeyasingh’s TooMortal live, it was a treat to experience her site-specific work in the hallowed nave of the lofty St Pancras Church in Euston. The church, built in the early 19th century in the Greek revival style, is a spectacular Grade1 listed building with an ecclesiastical gravitas that could be daunting for a performer in its midst. As soon as we enter the nave, the atmosphere feels as thick as smoke; a cloud of memories from the church’s history and the countless, births, deaths, confirmations and marriages it has witnessed. Jeyasingh was inspired by the history and powerful symbolism of churches like St Pancras as well as by the challenge of making a work that intervened with both. Her eight plucky female dancers who inhabit St Pancras’s empty pews, perform in counterpoint with its architecture, stories and energy.
Emerging from the depths of these high wooden seats the women dressed in red, striking and vampiresque against the gloomy light, balance on the narrow, hard shelves that separate each row. Draped like corpses and pale in eery blue light, they linger in this uncomfortable position for what seems an age. A choreographic journey unfolds where the women continually rise and fall from the pews, working with and against the architectural limitations: the hard angles, the slopes, the partitions of the box-like spaces confining them. From my place of relatively uncomfortable viewing (crammed with other audience members in the altar, straining my neck to see), I can’t imagine how much discomfort the dancers must feel on those hard Victorian designs.
There are horror movie moments: only the dancers’ upper bodies are visible from the waist up, and as they re-surface in gravity defying cycles of motion, the earth seems to repeatedly pull them down into its depths; sometimes bodies appear to glide along the pews as if moved by an invisible force. Moments of divine beauty also occur as the dancers pause in ethereal poses framed by Yaron Abulafia’s lighting design and immersed in Cassiel’s sound installation.
Divided by the aisle, the two groups dance in a variety of formations, often in unison but sometimes breaking out into duets and solos. They perform tight phrases of precise, geometric movements, rapid turns and spins, hurling their bodies from vertical to horizontal. Such complex patterns created on the surface of the confined space, bizarrely make me think of artistic (synchronised) swimming. Gazes are fixed and neutral giving the performers, like professional swimmers, an added quality of being detached and untouchable. Bodies are half submerged as if in water; as they plunge down into the depth of the pews or surf over the top, they might be struggling against an angry tide.
Ultimately both dancers and the choreography defy the patriarchal, religious oppression that dominates old churches. Jeyasingh and her company replace it with a radical female vitality and robust physical presence. With their shifting, restless bodies, the young women fight against mortality and traditional mores. TooMortal is worth every bit of discomfort and religious unease. I hope it continues to voyage further.